Simon raised his second glass of scotch and took a slow, thoughtful sip.
He still wasn't convinced that what he was looking at was for real, but if it was an hallucination it was an astonishingly vivid one. And he couldn't deny that he felt better now than he had in months, could he? OK then. For the time being he'd go along with this situation, crazy though it was, and see where it took him.
He was sitting in his kitchen. Outside it was a normal Saturday morning: couple of dogs barking, passing traffic, the yells of kids playing in the nearby park. Inside, insanity had somehow flown in through his open window.
On the table in front of him was a teacup padded with cotton wool, and in the teacup, her entire body smaller than his index finger, sat a fairy. She wore a tiny white dress, bright-green ankle boots, and she had a single pair of large, dragonfly wings, shot through with an emerald iridescence. Her short hair, as green as her boots, framed an angelic face, but there was nothing angelic about her shape. She had the kind of silicon-pumped figure he'd only ever seen in Baywatch. In her left hand she clutched a silver wand, in her right, a tiny pewter mug which she now held out to him. He took it, dipped it into his glass of scotch and handed it back full. That made four in the past fifteen minutes. For a fairy, she could certainly put it away.
'OK,’ said Simon. ‘Let's see if I've got this straight. Your boss heard me praying just before I stuck my head in the oven, right?'
'Right,' said the fairy.
'And Mars is in conjunction with Venus or something, so my number's come up. You've been sent down here to stop me topping myself, and to grant me two wishes, yes?'
The fairy took a deep swig out of her tankard and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
'Right again,' she said.
She wriggled further down into the cotton wool. Her dress hitched up, and Simon blushed. Fairies didn't appear to wear knickers.
'Oops,' she said, covering her bits with her wand and grinning up at him.
He laughed out loud, shaking his head in disbelief. This thing got weirder and weirder. It had to be an hallucination. Just had to be!
* * *
He'd woken that morning after another night of broken sleep, knowing that today was going to be the day. Mark had told him he was meeting a client for lunch and wouldn't be back until late afternoon. Yeah. Sure.
Simon had watched Mark's car turn out of the drive and edge into the steady flow of traffic. For a moment he'd rested his forehead against the cold, hard glass, then he'd gone into the kitchen, sealed the gaps around the door with sticky tape, and made sure the window was tightly closed. Folding a towel into a pad for his knees, he'd arranged himself in front of the cooker. Like church, he'd thought, but smaller and more domestic. He'd closed his eyes and mumbled a final prayer. Then he'd turned all the gas taps on full and stuck his head in the oven.
That was when he first saw her. It was dark, and she was so close he went cross-eyed focusing, but she was there all right. A fairy inside his oven, doing her best to hover, but finding the gas jets were making life difficult.
'Turn it off!' she yelled.
He jumped, cracking his head on the side of the oven and taking in his first lungful of gas. Instant nausea. He was too shocked to do anything but stare.
'Turn it off!' she repeated. 'It doesn't kill you, anyway. Not since they started using the natural stuff!'
Her wings flapped against his cheek and she flew out of the oven.
He’d debated the issue for a moment longer, but his rapidly building nausea had decided it for him. Pulling clear, he’d turned off the gas, slammed the oven door shut and collapsed with his back to it.
The fairy was over by the door, tugging at his strips of sealing tape. He wondered fleetingly if Mark had slipped a tab of LSD into his cornflakes that morning.
'Don't just sit there like a wet fart in a funnel,' she shouted. 'Help me get this off! No, on second thoughts open the window. I'm not strong enough.'
He answered in spite of himself.
'Can't... Gon' be sick!'
Leaving the tapes hanging, she flew back to him. He felt her weight as she landed on his right foot, put her hands on her hips and stood for a moment, shaking her head. It was like looking at his mother down the wrong end of a telescope, except for the ultra-short dress. And the wings, of course.
'Well what do you expect? Did you think a good sniff of the North Sea's finest was going to give you a wet nose and a glossy coat? I've a good mind to let you suffer!'
His stomach churned and produced a series of warning growls. Her expression softened.
'Hold it in a mo,' she said. 'You know how much you hate a messy kitchen.'
She launched herself off his shoe, flew straight at his face and smacked him right between the eyes with the star on the end of her wand. Something exploded inside his head, and he rolled over to avoid vomiting into his own lap. By the time he realised that he wasn't going to vomit, that in fact whatever she'd done had left him feeling OK apart from an odd, tingling aftershock, she was back at the door again, worrying at the tapes.
'Er... yes,' he said, sitting up. And he meant it. It wasn't just the nausea, either. The grey fog of depression that had swallowed him ever since he'd found out about Mark's affair had somehow lifted. The sunlight slanting through the window seemed brighter, the shouts of the park kids sharper.
She finished stripping the tapes and flew back to him with them trailing behind her like streamers from a kite.
'I’m sorry, but... are you real?' he said, as she dropped them into his outstretched hands.
'Does a bear shit in the woods? Now, dump those in the bin and get all the doors and windows open. I've got to fold my wings for a minute. I don't know about you, but I'm knackered!'
When he came back she was sitting on the windowsill.
'I could murder a drink,’ she said. ‘Got any whisky? You can put it in this.'
She tossed him her tiny pewter tankard, a miniature version of the one Mark had bought when he was going through his butch phase. He poked it around his palm with his little finger. It was solid enough. He could just about make out a name engraved in minute letters on the base: Susan. It seemed a very ordinary name for a fairy. He'd been expecting something like Titania. Or Tinkerbelle, maybe.
'There's half a bottle of Bells in the cupboard, er... Susan.'
'That'll do. Better pour yourself one, too. Then I reckon we should sit down together and have a bit of a chat, fairy to fairy, don't you?'
* * *
Susan glanced at the kitchen clock, drained her fifth mug of scotch and clambered out of her teacup.
'Right,' she said. 'Can't talk all day. Have you decided on your wishes?'
'Can I wish for an unlimited supply of wishes?'
'You can if you like, but the last punter to try that one ended up hopping the lily pads in an Outer Mongolian swamp. Two wishes in order of importance, most important first - that's the deal. And don't be too greedy.'
'Well the first one's easy. You know about Mark?'
'Oh yes. I know about Mark all right. He's a dork.'
Simon shrugged sadly.
'I love him. We've been together for nearly seven years. He's gone off the rails before, but it was never anything serious. This time, though...' He glanced down at his hands. 'I don't want to lose him, Susan.'
He looked up and saw her smiling at him sympathetically.
'So - what's your wish?'
'I wish things were like they used to be between us. No, wait, I wish things were better than they used to be!'
'OK. Stand back and let me do my thing!'
She rose into the air, lifted her wand, and began spinning like a toy ballerina. Her hair pulsed with a vivid green light, silver sparks crackled from the end of her wand, and high-impact rap music throbbed up through the kitchen floor:
'Eye of newt and runes of casting
Mark love Simon - Everlasting!'
She executed a perfect pas de bourree and dropped to the table.
'Sorry about the naff rhyme,' she said.
There was something different about her. It took a moment for his brain to register the change, but then it was obvious.
'You're fading!' he said. 'I can see right through you!'
'You think Magic is easy? Run a marathon or two, then you'll have some idea of what casting a spell is like. Anyway, we can't stay long in your world, Simon. Against the rules. What's your second wish?
'Money?' he said. It felt tawdry, but it was true.
'Surprise, surprise,' she sighed. 'OK, but I'll have to vanish for a minute. Don't worry. If I can, I'll pop back to say goodbye.' She waved her wand, there was an emerald flash, and she was gone.
Simon sat watching the clock. He'd half-convinced himself that his LSD theory was right after all when Susan reappeared, so faded now that she was little more than an outline in the shape of a fairy.
'Mark will be home soon,' she said. 'You'll see one or two changes in him, I think. Try to do a bit of good with the money.'
'What money?' he said.
She blew him a farewell, fading kiss.
'You'll find out. Remember, Simon, life's for the living. Enjoy it!'
And then he was alone in the kitchen, with only the sounds of the children shouting in the playground, and the dogs' fractious barks filtering through the open window.
* * *
'To us!' Mark raised his glass and clinked it against Simon's.
'To us,' said Simon.
Dinner had been perfect. Mark had never been so attentive, so thoughtful, so loving. Changes, Susan had said. Yes indeed.
'I've got a confession to make,' said Mark.
'Yeah. You know we agreed never to do the lottery?'
'Well, this afternoon some woman came up to me in the wine shop. She gave me this.' He plucked a lottery ticket from his shirt pocket. 'She swore blind it was going to win the double roll-over tonight. I paid for the wine, and when I turned around, she'd vanished.'
Simon took the ticket, grinned, kissed it.
'Aren't there some weird people about?' Mark said. 'Beautiful woman, too. Had the most amazing green hair.'
Won 2nd Prize of £150 in 1996 Way Ahead Competition